Two-dimensional bar codes could always encode this kind of information to support more effective business processes, but they have not always been convenient or practical for food producers and distributors to use in their daily operations. Advances in imaging technology are changing this.
Until very recently, technology limitations with area imaging often made it impractical for organizations to transition from legacy 1D bar code applications to use 2D symbols. Laser scanners cannot read all 2D formats.
Area imager scanners, which excel at 2D reading, couldn’t read 2D codes at distances greater than an arm’s length. The same scanner used to read a 2D symbol on a product also couldn’t read the location code of the warehouse shelf the product was picked from. That limitation led to application tradeoffs that stifled adoption.
With the development of a new generation of area imager scanners, these tradeoffs are now going away. Newly released area imagers can read both linear and 2D bar codes at distances ranging from a few inches to more than 50 feet, which opens up a whole new set of opportunities.
Now the same scanner can be used during one shift to read pallet labels and warehouse location bar codes at long distances for receiving and putaway operations and during the next shift to read compact 2D codes on individual items for unit picking and packing.
Improved scanning flexibility makes it practical to encode lot codes, serial numbers and or other variable information to supplement traditional 1D bar codes used for inventory and shipping applications. For example, a meat processing facility could use such scanners to identify large labels on incoming sides of beef and again after meat is processed to apply 2D labels on individual cuts with origin, sell-by date, weight and PLU data.
Improved convenience is helping 2D use grow. Today 2D applications are being adopted at more than double the rate of traditional 1D bar code technology, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, which expects many organizations to use both 1D and 2D bar codes together in their processes.
Imaging technology can also improve legacy bar code processes where laser scanners are used. Unlike lasers, imagers can read bar codes in any orientation. Workers become more productive when they no longer have to twist, turn or otherwise orient an object to line up with the scan beam. In a head-to-head test using a large sample of volunteers scanning 50 bar codes using a handheld computer equipped with an area imager, the volunteers completed the scanning in two thirds of the time it took while using laser scanners.
The dangers of food safety and brand counterfeiting are growing and so are auditing, documentation and traceability requirements. Bar code technology, which years ago revolutionized retail checkout and inventory management operations, has evolved and is again poised to help the food industry meet its tracking challenges.
Rasmussen is the consumer goods and industrial goods industry marketing director, Intermec Technologies Corp., Everett, WA. Contact him at Jon.Rasmussen@intermec.com.